A friend recently wrote a blog post about how mental illness are sometimes categorised by their symptoms, in particular by what the person is able to do. Perhaps a ‘severe’ case renders the person pretty helpless, unable to commit to a job or maintain a close relationship; a ‘mild’ case would let the person get by, but with the odd bad day or disproportionate reaction to some setback. The friend also pointed out that while it’s obviously easier to put things in boxes like this, and easier too to label the boxes using things that everyone can see (like behaviour), it is neither accurate nor fair.
By the very rough scale above, my depression is firmly in the ‘mild’ category. I have a full time job with quite a bit of responsibility, from which I haven’t taken a mental health-related sick day for over a year; I run a Rainbow unit which requires a weekly time commitment; I socialise; I clean the house (well, sometimes). I recently gained the highest award available within Girlguiding, the culmination of three years of entirely self-driven activity. I don’t lack drive, or tenacity.
What the scales do not take into account is why I might be doing those things. How do they know I’m not working because I’m a perfectionist and I’m secretly terrified that if I make a mistake then everyone will realise how stupid I am and then I’ll lose all my friends? That I’m not keeping myself busy out of desperation rather than enjoyment? Trying to fill my waking moments with things that take up enough mental energy that there is no room for the voices in my head telling me I’m rubbish? Cleaning because bitter experience has taught me that the weight of despair when I remain inert is ever so slightly heavier than the weight of exhaustion when I get up? Often there is very little correlation between my outside appearance my mental state; it’s a coping strategy.
It is the skill born of this strategy that leads to comments like ‘Oh, I never would have guessed you have depression!’. That is the point. I don’t want you to guess. Who wants other people to know they can’t even control their own emotions, especially if those other people are reporting to you or allowing you to look after their children? And maybe it’s reassuring to know that the disguise is working, to be reminded by my boss that all of my work is going just fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that doing all of these things well is so damn difficult.
I am tired. All the time. My currently strategy is to exercise a lot, so maybe it’s just physical exhaustion, but exercise can help depression and other things aren’t helping much so I have to try this because what if I don’t ever get better because I haven’t been exercising enough and it never goes away and I’m always just sad? I am stressed a lot of the time, and my concentration levels are often low so I struggle to be productive for long periods at work. My memory is bad and I find this incredibly frustrating. I oversleep and get to the office just in time to not be late so my day begins with me feeling sleepy and demoralised and like a terrible example to my hard-working and punctual team. I spend weekends doing ‘fun’ things but then all the time goes and I’m still tired and I’m not sure if I had enough fun to justify the weariness now. So it’s hard. And I want to act like it’s not because I wouldn’t wish the effects of this crap upon anyone else, but just because I am tenacious and good at pretending doesn’t mean that my box is ‘mild’.